WASHINGTON — Between the first and second quarter of the Maryland-Syracuse game on Saturday, the schools will take a moment to honor a player who was unfairly benched 76 years ago.
The story of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was brought out of obscurity by D.C. journalist Dave McKenna, who has written extensively about the 1937 game for the Washington City Paper and Deadspin.
McKenna talked to WTOP on Friday and shared the story.
On Oct. 23 1937, the day before the Maryland Terrapins would host the Syracuse Orange, a now-defunct weekly paper published a story that would change the course of the game, “NEGRO TO PLAY U. OF MARYLAND,” read the headline. Then the subhead, “THEY CALL HIM A HINDU.”
The Washington Tribune had discovered the Syracuse’s star player, Sidat-Singh, was not Hindu, as the school maintained, but black.
“This Hindu wasn’t a Hindu at all,” McKenna told WTOP. “He was a black kid from Washington, D.C.”
The problem: The University of Maryland at the time barred black people from playing sports and didn’t admit black students until 1951, McKenna reports.
The game was almost canceled. But a last-minute agreement was reached and Sidat-Singh spent the game benched on the sidelines.
Syracuse, ranked No. 17 at the time, lost the game, 13-0. It was their first defeat that year.
The following season, the two teams met in Syracuse with Sadat-Singh on the field. Maryland was crushed, 53-0.
Sidat-Singh continued his impressive athletic career until a few months after Pearl Harbor when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was in the first graduating class of the unit that would be called the Tuskegee Airmen, McKenna writes. In early May 1943, his plane went down; his body was found seven weeks later.
He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, University of Maryland says.
But his family never forgot his story, or what happened in Maryland that day in 1937.
Lyn Henley, 67, is Sidat-Singh’s cousin – their fathers were brothers. Last year, a cousin on Henley’s mother’s side became the University of Maryland’s chief diversity officer, and Henley sent her a note of good wishes. With that note, Henley included McKenna’s 2008 article about the long-ago game.
The cousin had never heard the story, and it intrigued her. She conducted an informal poll around campus and found that very few people knew the story. That’s when the decision was made: The next time Maryland hosted Syracuse, they would honor Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, the promising player they forced off the field 76 years ago.
That happens at Byrd Stadium on Saturday, when Sidat-Singh’s family will join officials and luminaries from both Maryland and Syracuse for an on-field tribute and recognition on the video board, the University says in a news release.
Sidat-Singh’s family will be presented a Maryland football Wounded Warrior jersey in recognition of his military service.
WTOP’s John Aaron and Amy Hunter and the Associated Press contributed to this story.